ST. LOUIS – It was a question-and-answer session with two of the big guys in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – J. Herbert Nelson, the denomination’s stated clerk, and Frank Spencer, president of the Board of Pensions – both of them literally tall men with a breadth of responsibilities.
For more than an hour Oct. 16 at the Mid Council Leaders Gathering, they answered questions posed by Brian Ellison, the associate stated clerk of the Synod of Mid America (and, in another part of his work life, a host at the public radio station KCUR in Kansas City). Ellison suggested some of the questions; others came from the crowd.
Here’s a bit of what they riffed on.
Recent changes. “The idea that Louisville” – where the PC(USA) has its national offices – “is the center of the church has shifted,” Nelson said. “I am not a stay-at-home clerk” – he’s made about 120 trips around the church, learning from Presbyterians in their own contexts.
The Board of Pensions has moved from saying, “what are the things we can count?” (such as members and dues) to focusing on wholeness and “what does the church look like in all its forms?” Spencer said.
Immigrants. Nelson spoke of meeting a Sudanese immigrant pastor in Iowa, of her sense of being called to ministry and her struggles to get through seminary and to pass the ordination exams and establish an Arabic-speaking fellowship.
She told him, “We may be poor, but we are rich in spirit.” And she said when she felt God calling her to ministry, “I was not going to do anything but be a Presbyterian pastor because it was you (Presbyterians) who taught me the gospel.”
The PC(USA) can build on its long tradition of world mission work, Nelson said. If they build connections with refugees and new immigrants – some of whom arrive in the U.S. already as Presbyterians – “we’re talking about a growing denomination.”
Categories. Nelson said he grew up in South Carolina, a place that formed him and whose influence he always carries. He spoke of his father, a pastor, and his mother, a teacher, and named one by one individuals and experiences that shaped him – watching the church and political dynamics of the struggle for integration.
That doesn’t fit in a box of conservative, moderate or liberal, Nelson said – that’s the unique story of his life and formative influences. “I think part of our struggle is we’re trapped in culture,” and put people into categories drawn from “a broken political system,” enforcing “the madness of who’s on one side and who’s on another.”
For himself, Nelson said he’s on the side of Jesus Christ, “who loved everybody, even those who were his enemies. … You want a category? That’s the one you use for me.”
Another influence of the culture is “we all become captive to our own context,” Spencer said. If we disagree, “I don’t want to talk to you.” We surround ourselves with the like-minded. But the gospel invites and calls people to move out of their own contexts, into the whole.
If you were the pope, what would you tell the church? Nelson said: Be joyful, take a breath, know there is a God who walks with us.
Spencer’s reply: Learn some of the lessons he learned while running the Habitat for Humanity chapter in Charlotte, North Carolina. Have a single vision. Lift up the successes. Have “one brand, one mission and a great sense of community. … We as a denomination could learn a great deal from that.”
Was Louisville ever the center of the church? Probably not, Nelson said, although when things didn’t go well, “there was a lot of blame cast there.”
Also, the dynamics of the church today tie back to the reunion of the northern and southern branches of Presbyterianism in 1983, he said – a time when two shrinking denominations came together to form a bigger one; when the role of ministers was increasingly seen as “low status and high stress;” and the role of the church in the society was changing. “We fought it out over power,” and formed one larger denomination.
When people disagree with General Assembly decisions, “it’s been so easy over the years to stamp that” on the national office, Nelson said.
The Holy Spirit. When Spencer came to the Board of Pensions in 2014, he felt “God was leading us to somewhere new, not to somewhere in decline.” He asks God “for the courage to tell the truth” – to “take a hard look at where we were failing this denomination” and for the strength “to name it and change it.”
Nelson said “this issue of scarcity just grips us at the soul” in the PC(USA), and he’s trying to “preach up a revival” wherever he goes.
It’s not possible to worship a transforming God, Spencer said, “and then throw our hands up in the air and plan for our own demise.”